Good Life

Business Q&A: ‘Taste buds don’t lie’

James Boscaino III, the owner of Jim’s Italian Cuisine in Bellefonte, has worked in the restaurant for 37 years.  “What’s been a really nice change is I’ve seen people change and grow up in the local community,” he said.
James Boscaino III, the owner of Jim’s Italian Cuisine in Bellefonte, has worked in the restaurant for 37 years. “What’s been a really nice change is I’ve seen people change and grow up in the local community,” he said. CDT photo

There’s a lot Jim Boscaino III won’t change about the business, and it all has to do with family.

His father started the tradition of closing Sunday and Monday for family time. It’ll stay that way. He’s added a few things to the menu, but he won’t take away any longtime favorites his parents created. And he won’t move the business at 204 E. Cherry Lane, Bellefonte.

Jim’s Italian Cuisine is a Bellefonte mainstay, a small joint with a few parking spaces lined up outside a few more tables inside — a place where when you walk in, it feels like everyone knows everyone.

That’s because Jim Boscaino Jr. opened the eatery in 1952, not long after the family’s first restaurant closed after about 40 years in business. Jim Boscaino III began to work in the restaurant in 1978.

“I worked for my father for the next 16 years,” he said. “There wasn’t a department I didn’t work in, including cleaning the toilets when it came down to it. If he wanted something done, anything done, I did it.”

He bought Jim’s Italian Cuisine in 1994.

Q: Why’d you take over the family business?

A: My dad’s health, number one. He was also ready to retire, and I liked the business. I liked what I was doing. The business was already very successful, so it was a turn-key operation, no problem. And I enjoy the people. When we were down for five months because of the fire it hurt financially, but I really missed seeing all the people.

Q: Could you tell me about the fire?

A: That was the kitchen fire in February of 2011. The fryer overflowed and just escalated up through the hood system up to the apartment, and we had to gut the kitchen. That took five months. The community was great — Bellefonte, Philipsburg, Pleasant Gap, Altoona, Lock Haven, Mill Hall, State College — everyone was amazing. When we reopened, it was crazy for like four or five months.

Q: I can’t imagine your dad could have prepared you for the aftermath for the fire. What did he teach you about the business?

A: He taught me to cook, all of the financial parts of it, building relationships with people and just how everything should be done. Some of it, to me, sounded old school. As you get older you realize, ‘Oh, that’s what he was trying to say.’ I’ve thought he did some things that didn’t have to be done his way, but then, as we like to say, ‘Taste buds don’t lie.’

Q: What have you learned in the years you’ve run the restaurant?

A: It’s a lot of work, a whole lot of work. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. I’m in here by quarter to 6 or 6 o’clock in the morning. I have another guy that comes in at 5 o’clock in the morning. He starts it off. I have another girl who comes in about when I do. It takes us 31/2 to 4 hours before we can even start. There is a lot of work and long hours in a business like this. I was like a lot of people — I didn’t realize how much work it was, and then it hit me when I had to take on all the responsibility.

Q: What has changed about running a restaurant over the last few decades?

A: Credit cards, number one, was a big change from always accepting cash and checks. Competition is greater than what it has been in past decades. There have been a lot more restaurants that have come in. In State College, too, there are chains that have opened up left and right, which is just a 10-minute drive now from Bellefonte because of I-99.

What’s been a really nice change is I’ve seen people change and grow up in the local community. I see them grow up, bring their kids in, and then their kids come with friends or a girlfriend. My father saw a generation grow up. I’ve seen a generation grow up, and now a new one is coming. It’s nice to see that.

Q: What have you changed about the family business over time?

A: I’ve just added some newer lines of food. But, no, I haven’t changed much else. I started deliveries to businesses, which my dad didn’t do. I put a limit on it, (minimum) $25, and we go to State College, Boalsburg, Centre Hall, Pleasant Gap ... Other than that, no, I’ve kept a lot the same.

Q: What are some things that have always been challenging about this industry?

A: Making sure you have the right quantity of food on hand and prepped for that day. You have a sense of what days bring in certain amounts of people through our door. On the weekends, you’ve got to really prep heavy. On Saturdays, we’re packed solid. People want food, so you’ve got to get it out. There is stress when people come through and you’re packed, and it takes time to make the food.

I also have my five girls here that help out, nieces, a sister that helps me, and then we have outsiders, but the majority is family. And you can’t show favoritism. You’ve got be fair, because they’d pick it up. That’s a big thing. If you are fair, it works good.

Q: You’ve been a part of the business 37 years. Why are you still running it?

A: Like I said, and we’ll go back to this, ‘Taste buds don’t lie.’ I like this. I like to be here, and it’s rare I take a day off. I might take a day off to go to a football game in St. Louis, and I might take in a Thursday night game in Pittsburgh. Sad enough, I work Saturday, so I don’t get to watch too many Penn State games. I have gone and watched 8 o’clock games, so that’s good.

Q: I’ve asked others in the restaurant business how often they cook for themselves, and most say they don’t. Do you cook a lot for yourself?

A: Oh, yeah. When I’m off, I’m cooking at home. I love my wife, and not that she’s not a good cook, because she is, but I’m used to eating something a certain way. When you’re used to something, you don’t like to change. Change is hard after so many years.

Q: Just like this place?

A: Yeah, yeah. People have asked why I don’t move to a bigger place, but this is what people like. They know this. They grew up here. I’ve talked about it to other owners, and they’ve told me not to move. They say it just gives you bigger headaches and if you’re making money, stay.

Q: What’s your favorite meal?

A: Italian Parmesan chicken with the garlic, the egg, the batter. We had that a lot at Christmas. We’d have that and wine and fresh Romano cheese, and fresh angel hair spaghetti. It’s really good. It’s really, really good. That’s my favorite.